When Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted in 1988, the premise might have seemed absurd: Host Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) is forced to watch (and comment on) bad movies with two salty robots. He’s stranded on the Satellite of Love by evil scientists (the Mads), and punished with films like Robot Holocaust and Teenage Cave Man.
These were very bad movies, not movies made to be bad. Mystery Science Theater was ahead of its time as a purveyor of obscure cinema, real-time film criticism, and whiplash riffs. On Friday, Netflix releases Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, an update on the series with comedian Jonah Ray as host and Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the new Mads. His bots in the peanut gallery, Tom Servo and Crow, also return. This time around, Jonah has more human company in the form of Jerry Seinfeld, Mark Hamill, and Neil Patrick Harris, the latter of whom sings a duet with Day that puts us thisclose to a Dr. Horrible sequel. It also kept the original series’ commercial break bumpers and beloved Invention Exchange.
We’re over-rebooted in terms of TV and film in 2017, so it’s notable that the show came back in a more organic way. The new series was funded via a Hodgson-led Kickstarter, and became a record-breaking project. The original series was never a mainstream hit, but the fandom quietly grew, strengthened by the obsessiveness of the internet. The series spawned offshoots like RiffTrax (with second host Mike Nelson) and live shows like Austin’s Master Pancake, which riffs on more mainstream movies in front of an audience. Pancake riffers Joe Parsons, Scott Chester, and John Erler were brought on to write episode 9 of the new series, featuring the 1967 South Korean flick Yongary: Monster From the Deep.
“We had a couple weeks to watch the film,” Erler says. “We used special software that allowed us to annotate the film with our jokes. We just watched the movie over and over and churned out as many jokes as we could. Cool process, though we never got to meet face-to-face with the other writers.”
The new series looks more polished, and the jokes have been updated. Episode 1 movie Reptilicus includes jokes about Kickstarter and the iPad, and subsequent episodes reference Oculus Rift, Tim and Eric, Burning Man, TED Talks, and Fuller House. This time around, Gizmonic employee Jonah has been captured after answering a distress call, and though his story is delivered via some clunky second-hand dialogue in episode 1, the show jumps right back into the comfy confines of the Satellite of Love, and the riff delivery largely remains the same.
There are some subtle new touches, like the increased screen time of bot Gypsy and a remixed opening sequence. Ray is a little more animated than Hodgson as a host, and even uses his platform to critique modern bad movie mills like Sharknado. MST3K wasn’t about irony; it urged us to look at all the little details that make up a truly bad movie, and then celebrated them. It was a series about an experiment, and it was an experiment itself.
“It was witty and also punk rock,” Erler says of the original series, “disruptive in the best way and because it’s something we all do when we’re at home—talk over movies—it felt like anybody could do it, even though these guys were way better than your average couch comedian.”
Now we have assorted platforms where we can heckle bad movies and TV, and YouTube personalities have made careers out of riffing on video games and pop culture. However, this reboot doesn’t feel shoehorned into a landscape littered with hot takes and chilled nostalgia. The premise isn’t that absurd now, but it’s still witty and punk—and does an admirable balancing act.